OLYMPIA – The fate of the state’s fish farming industry is in jeopardy following the Legislature’s passage of a bill that would prohibit new, renewed or extended leases on marine net pen farms that raise “nonnative” fish.
The legislation passed the Senate on March 2 and is headed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk, where it awaits his signature before becoming law. Inslee has said on multiple occasions that he is in support of banning marine net pen facilities that use Atlantic salmon.
House Bill 2957, sponsored by Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, came in response to a 2017 incident near Cypress Island, in which hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon escaped from a net pen facility operated by Canadian company Cooke Aquaculture.
A joint investigation between the Departments of Ecology, Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife found Cooke responsible for the incident based on a lack of maintenance, and the company was fined $332,000.
Although a companion bill by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, had already passed the Senate last month before dying in a House committee, HB 2957 saw a contentious debate on the Senate floor.
“Washingtonians will no longer accept this risky industry in our state waters,” Ranker said in a press release. “We have invested far too much in the restoration of our Salish Sea.”
But dissenters on the Senate floor warned that the legislation would kill a way of life that has thrived in the state for decades.
“In learning to do things better, we haven’t ever just erased an entire industry from this state,” said Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy. “I think it is unconscionable.”
Senators Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, and Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, both voted yes on Ranker’s bill when it came through the Senate, but said they changed their minds and worried about the precedent it set.
“I personally won’t eat farm-raised fish, but does that mean we should ban it?” Ericksen asked.
Baumgartner, who lives in eastern Washington, far from aquaculture of any kind, said he was concerned about “kicking out” an industry as punishment, and referenced a 2017 sewage spill in Seattle, which he said did not receive the same type of criticism.
Another kind of precedent at play for bill opponents related to Cooke’s Canadian base. At HB 2957’s public hearing, Cooke Vice President of Public Relations Joel Richardson said that salmon releases had occurred before in Washington state, under the watch of American companies.
Richardson said that the state had not sought to punish these companies, and that the escapes were not deemed dangerous to the environment. He added that the Legislature was in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, which compels local governments to treat international corporations as if they were domestic.
Richardson said that Cooke’s investment in Washington state totals $76 million and warned that the company would seek litigation against the state to recoup that loss under NAFTA’s legal provisions.
“What I’m worried about is the precedents we’re setting with this,” said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, in the Senate floor debate. “We’re talking about companies out of our country that would be held to a different standard.”
Under the new legislation, the options for maintaining aquaculture in Washington state involve using native salmon stocks, or moving facilities onto land. Inland salmon farms have recently opened in British Columbia and Florida, with two more planned to be built in Maine.
Washington also has salmon farms that raise native stocks like coho and steelhead, but such fish pose threats to local populations when raised in marine net pens, according to Ken Warheit, director of fish-health and the genetics lab for Fish and Wildlife.
Warheit said that if farmed native salmon escape, they would be able to breed with wild populations, while Atlantic salmon have not demonstrated the same ability.
Dan Swecker, executive director of the Washington Fish Growers Association, said Atlantic species of salmon are better suited for farming because they have been in prevalent worldwide use for decades. He said “they get fat and they eat,” more so than native stocks.
Swecker added that inland farming could be made possible with the perfection of recirculating aquaculture systems, which are currently used in the state for juvenile salmon but are not yet cost-effective for raising adult fish.
The Fish Growers Association will do everything it can to keep Cooke around, Swecker said, but he also said Cooke may face too much political resistance to succeed in Washington state.
It is too soon to tell what the company’s future in Washington will look like, according to Richardson, who said in an interview that a move to inland farming is “unlikely,” but nothing can yet be ruled out.
“At this point in time we’re reviewing all the options,” he said. “We are committed to working in Washington.”
Alex Visser is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.